NEW YORK (Reuters) - Introduced by Bill Clinton and facing a room filled with Democrats, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney pulled his punches on Tuesday and outlined an approach to foreign aid that would boost the role of free enterprise in developing nations.
Romney addressed the former president's Clinton Global Initiative and from the outset made light of his situation.
Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention last month gave a boost to President Barack Obama, who now leads Romney in a number of swing states that will be vital in the November 6 election.
After Clinton gave a polite introduction of Romney, thanking him for his support for the Americorps foreign aid program begun during the Clinton presidency, Romney quipped:
"If there's one thing we've learned this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good. After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce," he said.
Laughter rang through the audience, which included a number of high-profile Democrats like former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, former Ohio Senator John Glenn, retired General Wesley Clark and entertainer Will.i.Am, among others.
The Clinton Global Initiative is a bipartisan aid effort and Romney held back from his usual campaign barbs against Obama.
But with the world's attention on the annual United Nations General Assembly where Obama spoke in another part of Manhattan, Romney cited a number of foreign policy challenges that implied criticism of Obama's handling of them.
"Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. And Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events," he said.
Romney had drawn criticism from Democrats and some Republicans two weeks ago by injecting politics into the tragic events surrounding the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel in Libya.
That was only one of several stumbles to afflict the former Massachusetts governor since his own Republican convention, and he is now attempting to return his campaign to solid ground with six weeks left of campaigning.
After his visit to New York, he will go on a two-day bus tour of Ohio, widely considered to be a state he must win. A Washington Post poll had Obama up eight points in Ohio, 52 percent to 44 percent.
He will be joined at a rally in Dayton by his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, to try to recreate the energy for his campaign that the pair generated when he picked the conservative Wisconsin congressman to join the ticket last month.
Romney's central theme in New York was to propose that the United States put a greater focus on using U.S. foreign assistance to encourage free enterprise as a way of creating jobs in the developing world.
Romney argued that much of U.S. development aid has had limited success at lifting people out of poverty and that U.S. foreign aid programs frequently have tried to supplant private enterprise.
"A temporary aid package can jolt an economy. It can fund some projects. It can pay some bills. It can employ some people some of the time. But it can't sustain an economy — not for long," he said.
Romney, a former private equity executive, proposed a "prosperity pact" program that would use financial assistance to support development of free enterprise.
The United States has backed "micro-credit programs" for years to fund small loans to help entrepreneurs in developing nations create businesses. Bill Clinton was a prime advocate for these policies.
Romney would take that a step further to provide assistance to help medium-sized businesses develop and connect them to the global market.
"A year from now, I hope to return to this meeting as president, having made substantial progress toward achieving the reforms I've outlined," Romney said.
Reporting By Steve Holland; editing by David Storey